Untitled Document

Can you survive on 4G alone?

by Nizar on 2013-08-29 at 10:57:19


With the UK set to become the third largest 4G market in Europe by the end of 2014, is there any need for fixed-line services any more? Sophie Curtis investigates.

EE is no longer the only mobile operator offering 4G data in the UK. With the launch of 4G services from Vodafone and O2 today, and an additional service from Three expected in the fourth quarter of this year, 4G looks set to become ubiquitous within a couple of years.

According to market analyst Analysys Mason, the UK will be the third largest 4G market in Europe by the end of 2014, with nearly 8 million connections. As the market matures and competition increases, the cost of 4G services will come down and operators will move to shared data plans and multi-device plans.

The arrival of 4G services in the UK may prompt some people to consider abandoning their fixed-line services altogether. The necessity of a fast and reliable broadband internet connection is the only reason many people pay for a landline, and 4G speeds promise to match and even exceed most existing fixed-line services.

Moving house with 4G

When the time came for me to move house recently, and I was told that it would take several weeks for a BT engineer to install my new broadband connection, I decided to put this idea to the test, and see if I could survive for a month on 4G alone.

EE agreed to lend me an Alcatel One Touch MiFi dongle with the ability to connect up to 10 devices, which I was able to set up in my new flat as soon as I moved in. I was supplied with an 8GB data allowance, which costs £41 per month on a 12-month contract.

My partner and I immediately connected several devices to the MiFi and began browsing the web simultaneously. The browsing experience was extremely fast, and even when we invited visitors to connect the 4G, the level of service did not degrade.

Speed tests using Ookla revealed that the average download speed was 13.82 Mbps and upload speed was 11.88 Mbps. While this is quite a lot slower than EE’s promised average download speed of 24-30Mbps, it is still faster than my previous BT connection, which provided around 9Mbps download speeds.

As well as browsing the web and social media, we were able to watch videos on YouTube and stream music from Spotify without any interruptions for “buffering”. However, the real challenge came when we decided to stream HD video from LoveFilm Instant.

After some initial problems, where the screen seemed to stutter and we were forced to pause and refresh the page, the programme played fairly smoothly. There were a few moments where the picture became pixelated, but no more frequently than with a BT connection.

Data caps

What was really noticeable, though, was how quickly we chewed through our 8GB data allowance. A 2-hour standard-definition movie is about 1.5 GB, and a 2-hour high-definition movie is about 4 GB, so our 8 GB data allowance was gone in a flash.

If the data allowance is reached, the user is asked to buy a top-up data bundle, costing £3 for 50MB, £15 for 2GB, or £20 for 4GB. It is clear that, for heavy internet users, such as film buffs and online gamers, this could become very expensive very quickly.

EE does offer a 20GB package for £61 per month with a 12-month contract, or £51 per month with a 24-month contract. This would be a sufficient for most casual users, but film buffs and online gamers would still struggle to stay within this limit.

By contrast, O2’s largest 12-month 4G data package is 5GB for £36 per month, with top-up data bundles of 500MB for £6 and 1GB for £10. This means it would cost £156 per month for 20GB of data from O2.

Vodafone’s largest 12-month 4G data package is 8GB for £36 per month, with top-up data bundles of 250MB for £6. This means it would cost £332 per month for 20GB of data from Vodafone.

To put those numbers in perspective, BT's 40GB Infinity package costs £30.45 per month, including line rental, while Virgin Media offers unlimited data usage starting from £22.50 per month.

“The capped data could be an issue at this stage for anyone trying to replace fixed-line broadband services with 4G,” said Matthew Howett, analyst at Ovum.

“Generally consumers don’t have a great understanding of how much data they use. Most of us don’t use as much data as we think on our phone, but the sort of things we do with fixed broadband - like streaming of catch-up TV and so on - uses quite a lot of data.”

Speed and contention

Howett said that the browsing experience using 4G is highly influenced by the number of other people using it at the same time. At the moment, EE’s network is fairly empty, so the download speeds and upload speeds are very fast, but this could change as the network becomes more congested.

Although fixed-line networks can also slow down when they become congested, "contention" is more of an issue for mobile networks, because the pipes they use to deliver the data are not as fat as those used by fixed-line.

EE recently doubled the amount of spectrum that it has allocated to 4G, and in doing so it not only doubled the speed of its 4G service, but also reduced the issue of contention. However, if every EE customer started using a MiFi dongle with 6 devices attached to it, the impact on the network would be noticeable.

Meanwhile, O2, Vodafone and Three are all limited by the amount of spectrum they won in the 4G auction earlier this year. They do not have as much spectrum set aside for 4G as EE at this stage, so their services are likely to be considerably slower, and contention could be more of an issue from day one.

Drawbacks

While my experience proved that it is possible to live on 4G alone - albeit expensively - it is easy to see how users could run into difficulties fairly quickly. There is no way to connect to the MiFi device using a cable, so anything that is not WiFi-enabled cannot be used.

There is also a limit on the number of devices that can connect to the MiFi at one time, so large families or households with multiple devices may suffer. This could become more of a problem as the houses themselves become connected, with lights, heating and appliances all needing an internet connection.

Due to restrictions on the amount of spectrum used for 4G, the difference between peak and off-peak broadband speeds could be more pronounced, as the operators will have to employ traffic management techniques.

Moreover, some mobile operators might block access to certain applications, such as Skype, or make users pay a premium to access those services, so it is important to check whether there are any applications that cannot be used over the network.

Finally, it is worth noting that not having a landline means having to pay premium rates for 0800 and 0845 numbers, which can become very expensive if you are moving house, so this should be factored into the decision-making process.

Rural broadband opportunity

In spite of these drawbacks, mobile operators have a fantastic opportunity to replace broadband in areas where fixed-line broadband coverage is very poor.

EE claims that its 4G service will cover 98 per cent of the population by the end of 2014, while O2 has an obligation to provide 98 per cent of the population with a 2Mbps service by 2017, as part of the terms of the 4G auction.

EE has so far focused on towns and cities, and other operators are expected to do the same when they roll out their 4G services, in order to attract as many subscribers as possible. However, EE has been trialling its 4G broadband service in rural parts of Cumbria, and Three has also expressed a desire to serve rural areas of the UK.

When 4G does roll out across the countryside, it is likely to offer a better service than fixed-line in many areas, where people still struggle to get 2Mbps. In these cases 4G could be a good option for consumers, as long as mobile operators bring the prices down.

"Our 4G footprint will pretty closely match our 2G footprint and, as such, there will be data services brought to parts of rural Britain where people have never had mobile data services before," said Paul Ceely, head of network strategy at EE.

"I don’t think we would advocate shifting entire regions of fixed onto mobile. If you’ve got access to superfast broadband in your area, then we’d probably advocate that you continue to use that. But in those areas where it’s hard to get fixed, people should give it due consideration."

Ceely added 4G could also be a good option for individuals who do not want a long-term contract commitment, like university students or other people who are only living in a certain place for a short amount of time.

"We have a number of examples of businesses benefitting too – a construction company that used to have to wait an average of 30 days for broadband installation when they arrived at a site, but now they can set up the moment they arrive because they take mobile broadband from EE," he added.

4G or not 4G?

The question is not so much whether it is possible to live on 4G - for the moment, at least, we can confidently say that it is. The question is whether it is really a practical solution.

Connectivity is an increasingly important part of our lives, and we are less and less willing to accept limitations on our online activity. As the internet has evolved, fixed-line operators have adapted their networks to meet consumer needs, but mobile networks were never built to carry vast quantities of data, and this continues to be a problem for operators.

The prohibitively high cost of large 4G data packages is part of the fallout from this, and it is hard to see how mobile operators will bring down prices without imposing more limitations on their networks - particularly while the national rollout is underway.

Once 4G is established, however, and operators are forced to differentiate on more than just coverage, then 4G may become a truly viable replacement for fixed-line services.



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